This is when you should start being checked for breast cancer – and what a mammogram involves

This is when you should start being checked for breast cancer – and what a mammogram involves
Around one in eight women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime (Photo: Shutterstock)

About one in eight women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

However, if the disease is detected early, treatment is more successful and there’s a good chance of recovery, explains the NHS.

But at what age do women get screened for breast cancer, and what does the screening process involve? This is everything you need to know.

What is a mammogram?

Breast screening aims to find breast cancers early, using an X-ray test called a mammogram. A mammogram can spot cancers when they’re too small to see or feel.

Your mammogram will take place at a special clinic or mobile breast screening unit and carried out by a female health practitioner.

Your breasts are X-rayed one at a time. The breast is placed on the X-ray machine and gently but firmly compressed with a clear plate. Two X-rays are then taken of each breast at different angles.

What age will I start being screened for breast cancer?

Breast screening is currently offered to women aged between 50 and 71 in England, as the likelihood of getting breast cancer increases with age.

Those registered with a GP are automatically invited for breast cancer screening every three years.

Your mammogram will take place at a special clinic or mobile breast screening unit (Photo: Shutterstock)
Your mammogram will take place at a special clinic or mobile breast screening unit (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Scottish Breast Screening Programme invites women aged between 50 and 70 years old for screening every three years. Women over 70 years old are able to attend through self-referral.

Similarly, the Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme is a rolling one which calls women from GP practices in turn every three years from the age of 50 to 70. Not every woman will receive an invite as soon as she is 50, but each woman should receive her first invite before the age of 53.

Trial for screening younger women

A trial to examine the effectiveness of offering some women one extra screening between the ages of 47 and 49 and one between the ages of 71 and 73 is currently underway.

You will first be invited for screening between within three years of your 50th birthday, but in some areas you’ll be invited from the age of 47 as part of the age extension trial.

You may be eligible for breast screening before the age of 50 if you have a very high risk of developing breast cancer.

If you’re aged 71 or over, you’ll stop receiving screening invitations, but you can still have screening if you wish to, and can arrange an appointment by contacting your local screening unit or GP.

Why is breast screening offered?

According to the NHS, most experts agree that regular breast screening is beneficial in identifying breast cancer early and the earlier the condition is found, the better the chances of surviving it.

You’re also less likely to need a mastectomy (breast removal) or chemotherapy if breast cancer is detected at an early stage.

Breast awareness

The NHS notes that it’s important to be breast aware, so you can pick up any changes as soon as possible, explaining that “it’s vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP.”

Women should check their breasts regularly for any changes (Photo: Shutterstock)
Women should check their breasts regularly for any changes (Photo: Shutterstock)

Get to know what is normal for you, as this will make it much easier to spot potential problems.

If you’re worried about breast cancer symptoms (such as a lump or area of thickened tissue in a breast) or you notice that your breasts look or feel different from what’s normal for you, don’t wait to be offered screening – see your GP.